In 1891, Alfred H. Spink, the secretary and general manager of St. Louis’ South Side Park/Fair Grounds and founder/editor of the baseball publication The Sporting News, began work on a three-act play ultimately titled “The Derby Winner.”
“The Derby Winner” was the story of the cash poor Milt West, who aimed to run his mare, the “Missouri Girl,” in the St. Louis Derby in order to secure enough money to pay for his rapidly approaching wedding. Milt’s fiancée Alice begins to hear whispers about his relationship with a “Missouri Girl” and thinks the worst.
Debuting at St. Louis’ Grand Opera House on August 25, 1894, much fanfare surrounded the debut of “The Derby Winner,” including at Spink’s own South Side Park (a facility which credited itself as being the only track in the world where night racing was conducted –referred to as the “electric races”), where:
“Around the track large signs read ‘The track will be closed on Saturday evening, Aug. 25, and all racing will be done on the stage of the Grand Opera House,’ and on the entry board the following notice appears written by some wag among the horsemen: ‘Notice to owners and jockeys – Those not showing up at the Grand Opera House on Saturday evening, Aug. 25, to witness the initial performance of the ‘Derby Winner’ will be promptly ruled off this track, and under no conditions will be allowed to enter in any more races.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 08/19/1894)
At the time of debut, “The Derby Winner’s” human cast numbered forty-two, and included the future Hall of Fame jockey Isaac Murphy, who had expressed interest in pursuing a stage career. Murphy wasn’t the only famous non-actor to take on a role in the production, as Major League pitcher Theodore “Ted” Breitenstein (then of the St. Louis Browns), would later on briefly become a member of the cast during the baseball off-season.
The initial equine cast included the Thoroughbreds All Ablaze, Anawan, Freeland, La Cigale, Pat King, and [The] Drummer, who were outfitted to run on treadmills during the ‘running’ of the St. Louis Derby. Much like the human cast, the equine players would change over time, eventually including the Thoroughbreds Dr. Wilcox, Harry Edwards, Ianthe, Idea, Miss Price, Oblige, and Remedy.
Popular retired racer Freeland, then fifteen-years-old, had the starring role as the “Missouri Girl,” and was ridden in the early performances by his real-life jockey Murphy, who, as he was during their previous partnership, was clad in Ed Corrigan’s green and white colors.
The production itself was not without mishaps, as:
“Al Spink was the victim of an unexpected bit of realism on the stage of the Avenue yesterday afternoon. Anawan, one of the horses that figure in the stable and race scenes of “The Derby Winner,” had evidently grown dissatisfied at his minor role and made a kick. Mr. Spink was starting the horses at the time of Anawan’s kick, and will wear his right arm in a sling for some days in consequence.” (Louisville Courier-Journal, 11/20/1895)
While the script would undergo revision throughout its life, below is the original premise of “The Derby Winner” as reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of August 26, 1894:
“The scenes of the play are all in St. Louis beginning at the old Grant Farm to the southwest and working up past the Cherokee Garden and the South Side night track to the Fair Grounds. Each one of the scenes is a graphic picture of the place it is intended to represent. The old Grant cabin and the River Des Peres as it was once are excellent representations. The garden and South Side track are grouped together and from the garden entrance a good view of the track is had, with its lights all ablaze.
The Fair Grounds track and stables are pictured to the life. In fact on the fence to the stables can be seen the sign, “no trespassing, C. W. Bellairs, Supt.”
The play itself lacks a substantial plot. Milt West is a horse owner who is at the end of his resources and is in love with Alice Noble, a St. Louis County girl, and every inch a lady. Alice bears vague rumors concerning a “Missouri Girl,” with whose name that of Milt West is constantly associated. She has implicit faith in Milt West but nevertheless thinks it rather strange that West will not tell her about that “Missouri Girl.” The day of the wedding approaches and West with Miss Noble and a party of friends are at the Cherokee Garden. There again the girl hears of the mysterious “Missouri Girl” and Jack Right, a bookmaker, quarrels with West over past grievances, the main one being that he too is in love with Alice Noble.
West tells his troubles to his friends, Dan McCleary and Tom Goodman, and says he can win the St. Louis derby the next day with “Missouri Girl,” and if he could only back her sufficiently his fortune would be made. McCleary relieves his mind by promising to back “Missouri Girl” for $20,000.
Jack Right in the meantime puts up a scheme to poison “Missouri Girl” with Tommy Bell, a track tout. Tommy Bell, however, runs upon Right, and warns West to watch his horse. Alice Noble hears of the poisoning plot, and still thinking that “Missouri Girl” is a woman, decides to save her rival even if it breaks her heart. She hears that the poisoning is to be at the Fair Grounds and goes there, where she encounters Right and spoils his plot, but fails to discover the identity of her rival, for whom she has endured so much.
“Missouri Girl” wins the Derby and a fortune for all interested in her, but Alice Noble does not even then discover who her rival is, and is grieving alone down on the Grant farm. Only at the last moment the next day at Cherokee Garden does she meet the “Missouri Girl” and learn her mistake.”
It was later reported that the premise of “The Derby Winner” had basis in some fact:
“The incident upon which the play is built is a true one, having come under Mr. Spink’s experience while doing newspaper work, under Walter B. Stevens, Washington correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, who was at that time its city editor. Mr. Spink knew Milt West well, and when the bookmaker was caught in the act of poisoning West’s favorite filly, Spink took a fall out of him, and sent him to the hospital for repairs.” (The Washington Post, 02/02/1896)
Prior to “The Derby Winner’s” launch back in August 1894, local sportswriter George Munson had resigned his position as secretary and manager of the St. Louis Browns baseball club in order to become a press agent for Spink and his play.
Upon the decision to take “The Derby Winner” on the road following its successful St. Louis debut, Munson would assume the role of manager for the traveling show, where over the course of two years, “The Derby Winner” would make appearances in Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Lawrence (KS), Louisville, Nashville, Washington, D.C., and Wheeling (WV) in addition to repeat runs in its native St. Louis.
Despite the strenuous travel schedule, the horses were said to be well looked after, as in the case of Freeland, “When Ed Corrigan saw him at Chicago a couple of weeks ago he was overjoyed to see him looking fit as a fiddle and in such excellent hands.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, 12/27/1894)
Spink would ultimately sell all rights to “The Derby Winner” to Munson in March 1896. While “The Derby Winner” was advertised to be the “most successful racing and comedy drama ever staged with the race track as its theme,” it was later reported that Spink had lost around $250,000 over the course of the production. Rights to the show would soon again change hands, with Charles Moran reported as being the show’s proprietor as of 1897. Performances would continue under his name through at least December 1898.
Unsurprisingly, the notoriety of “The Derby Winner” would give way to a real “Missouri Girl,” a Missouri-bred bay filly by the Buckden (GB) stallion Bubbler out of Faience (aka Fiance) by Mortemer (FR) foaled in 1894. She would ultimately fail to achieve the same success on the racetrack as her namesake, racing several times to little success in St. Louis as a two-year-old.